“When two people are inseparable, we say they’re like corn and beans,” says Salazar, my guide on the island of Santiago, explaining how the seeds are planted in the same hole and the crops grow together, tightly entwined, each sustaining the other. It’s not a simile I’d use as a chat-up line, although it probably sounds better in Creole, which is spoken on the 10 islands of the Cape Verde archipelago, 350 miles off the coast of Senegal.
Of these palpably African islands, Santiago is one of the most mountainous. While coastal areas are arid, the interior is lush, with great swathes of sugar cane, banana, mango and corn covering the hillsides on the drive from Praia, the capital, to Tarrafal in the north. Each golden stalk is encircled by a vine, heavy with beans, whose roots trap nitrogen in the soil, helping both plants to grow.
The same symbiosis can be seen in Cape Verde’s national dish, cachupa, a heavenly, slow-cooked stew of plump corn kernels and beans, which can be enriched with pork fat to create cachupa pobre, or combined with salted pork, sausage, pumpkin, greens, sweet potato, cassava and sometimes tuna to produce the ‘rich’ version, cachupa rica. Time-consuming to prepare, cachupa is traditionally made on Saturdays and generally appears on restaurant menus only once a week. Leftovers can be reheated the following day to make cachupa refogada, eaten for breakfast with a fried egg and linguiça, a smoked sausage laced with paprika.
Another staple is kuskus, sweetened, steamed cornbread, served hot with butter and sometimes queijo de cabra — salty, tangy goat’s cheese, often paired with coarse papaya jam and eaten for breakfast or as a dessert. The finest cheese is said to come from Santo Antão, the most agricultural of the Cape Verde islands and the one with the gourmet reputation: it produces the best honey, grogue (sugar-cane spirit, similar to Brazilian cachaça) and pimenta rosa — the dried berries of a shrub related to the rose bush, which impart a mild, peppery warmth and juniper/citrus flavour to fish and seafood, of which there’s no shortage on these breezy Atlantic isles.
At Baia Verde, a simple restaurant overlooking the beach at Tarrafal, I order fresh catch of the day: two whole salmonete (West African goatfish, like red mullet) served with potatoes, yam, plantain, rice and xeren — pounded corn, sold by the bagful in markets everywhere — which is boiled like rice and served with an equal quantity of it on the same plate, often with a dot or two of malagueta, a fiendishly spicy sauce made from chilli peppers. Xeren can also be cooked with beans to make the sustaining dish jagacida (‘jag’), eaten with pork or chouriço.
Lunch at Baia Verde ends with a perfect espresso. Salazar draws my attention to the sachet of sugar, with its Picasso-esque depiction of a woman with blue eyes and pale skin but a broad, black nose and Afro hair. “It’s advertising coffee from Fogo, the most racially mixed of our islands,” he says. “There was a French colony there, and the children, with their brown skin and golden hair, look like angels. We’ll see Fogo on the drive back to Praia.”
As we leave Tarrafal, our 4WD turns a corner and there, on the horizon, lancing the clouds, is the steep-sided cone of Pico do Fogo — the highest mountain in the archipelago, at 9,281ft, and its only active volcano. In addition to coffee, which thrives here at high altitude, the fertile volcanic soil of Fogo nurtures grapevines, which in turn produce perfectly decent wines. Chã Vinho de Fogo, from grapes grown within the rim of the crater, is available as a fresh, subtly sweet white that goes well with fish, or as a full-bodied red with notes of blackberry and pepper. A second winery, Sodade, also wins plaudits.
Both labels are conspicuous on Boa Vista and Sal, the driest and most desert-like of the islands, yet the ones attracting most visitors with their year-round sun, large, all-inclusive hotels, perfect white beaches and breezy conditions, ideal for watersports from kitesurfing to windsurfing.
In Santa Maria, the main tourist town on Sal, the food ranges from safe (pizza, pasta, platters of cheese and salami) to surreal. At Palm Beach, a surfy, cafe-style restaurant on the sand, I try carpaccio of octopus (paper-thin discs of marinaded tentacle), krakas (barnacles) nuggets of shrimp-like meat prised from their shells with a pick, and percebes (goose barnacles), leathery black tubes with what look like horny jaws on the end. Try snapping them off, and a thread of squid-like flesh can be extracted, tasting of the sea and deemed a delicacy.
But it’s the larger marine species that delight. At the frenetic fish market in Mindelo, on São Vicente island, Edson, my guide, shows me tuna the size of sheep, wheeled around on porters’ trolleys; wahoo, similar in shape to barracuda; serra, like king mackerel; moreia (moray eel, eaten in chilli sauce as a snack with a beer); and esmoregal (greater amberjack), which I later enjoy at the Grills Baia restaurant in Baía das Gatas. Back on Sal, my best meal is rascasse (scorpion fish) — four fillets of chunky white fish, caught that morning and cooked to perfection at Zum Fischermann, in Santa Maria.
Five Cape Verde food finds
Cape Verdean Market, Santa Maria, Sal: Shady courtyard complex, with bar selling traditional produce: pimenta rosa, papaya jam, malagueta, Fogo wines and grogue (sugar-cane rum) with percebes (goose barnacles) pickled in it.
Fogo coffee: Grown around Mosteiros, in the north of the island, and described by experts as ‘floral, bright and acidic, with a smooth aftertaste’.
Fogo wine: The Chã and Sodade wineries produce red, white, rosé and passito (a dessert wine made with Moscatel raisins). Widely available from €7 (£5.82).
Pimenta Rosa: Dried berries of baies rose from Santo Antão, with a lemon-spice kick. €2.40 (£1.99) from the Cape Verdean Market.
Mercado de Peixe, Avenida Marginal, Mindelo, São Vicente: Noisy, malodorous and smelly, this bustling fish market is the place to fill up on marine species.
Four places for Cape Verdean cuisine
Run by Uwe Thom, a Berliner who came to Sal 11 years ago to run a game-fishing company, this converted pub was the food find of my trip. It only serves fish — whole or filleted — with rice, pumpkin, potato, carrot and a slice of lemon. From the familiar (tuna, snapper, sea bream) to the exotic (Atlantic emperor, bulldog dentex, grunt), the fish is ocean-fresh and expertly cooked à point. The interior is quirkily decorated with thousands of shells.
■ How much: Starters from €3-12 (£2.50-9.98), mains from €7-14 (£5.83-11.65). Santa Maria, Sal Island. T: 00 238 991 76 00.
Marco Scatigna’s ambitious venture raises the bar for dining in Santa Maria, with linen tablecloths, ice buckets, attentive service and a great wine cellar. In a romantic, walled garden with basil and tomato plants, diners choose Mediterranean food or local dishes given an Italian twist by chef Paolo Chinellato. These include octopus salad with potato and black olives (perfect); fish soup; swordfish tartar (very Cape Verdean) with pesto (very Italian); an over-salty seafood risotto; and the best cachupa I’ve tasted.
■ How much: Starters from €10-17 (£8.32-14.12), mains from €13-18 (£10.81-14.97). Santa Maria, Sal island. T: 00 238 242 11 86.
Overlooking the white-sand crescent of Tarrafal Beach, this quirkily authentic restaurant (think AstroTurf carpet, jungly pot plants, plastic tablecloths and a ceiling adorned with gaudy pennants) keeps the food simpler than the decor. There are only three or four fish choices, plus the Brazilain-style feijoada (a stew of beans and pork) that’s ideal with a local Strela beer. Afterwards, stroll among colourful fishing boats on the beach.
■ How much: Starters from €2-5 (£1.66-4.16), mains from €9.50 (£7.90). Tarrafal, Santiago Island. T: 00 238 266 11 28.
Baía das Gatas, a bay named after a local species of shark, hosts a music festival every August, showcasing local and international talent. Try this simple place, in sight of the main stage. My delicious fillet of grilled esmoregal (amberjack) came with fries, boiled potato, salad, salsa verde and a huge plateful of spinach, cabbage and carrot. Pudim de queijo (cheese pudding), made with cheese, milk, sugar and eggs, ruined attempts to be healthy.
■ How much: Starters from €2-5 (£1.66-4.16), mains from €7.50 (£6.24). Baía das Gatas, São Vicente island. T: 00 238 232 68 68.
Published in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)